A brief list of the principal Roman weapons used by militia is given below.
- Pugio – dagger
- Gladius – a short sword, initially borrowed from the Etruscans. The word eventually came to signify swords in general. Various different designs evolved.
- Spatha – a longer sword used particularly by cavalry towards the end of the empire
- Hasta – basic thrusting spear with wooden handle a couple of metres long. There was a specific type of militia called the “hastati” who used this weapon.
- Pilum – probably the first armor piercing weapon. It was essentially a heavy throwing javelin with a thin spearhead held by a long thin metal shaft. If stopped by a shield the tip would bury itself in and possibly penetrate through to the body, but in any case the metal shaft would bend under the impact, rendering it useless should the enemy want to throw it back. The shield would probably also become useless due to the pilum being stuck in and bent. The Romans also had lighter types of javelin.
- Arcus and sagitta (bow and arrow) – Roman bows were generally composite bows, using the properties of different materials to make the best of their individual properties in terms of compression, extension and energy transfer (springiness).
The list of roman weapons given above is very much a simplification given the great deal of development and variety of war situations the Romans found themselves in. A further section has been added to give greater detail of ancient Roman weapons
, their variety and development through time.
The effectiveness of the Roman army through time was the result of many factors amongst which lay their readiness to learn new tactics and equipment from their enemies and then further adapt them for their own particular needs and strengths. As a result of this, many of the weapons and armament which are considered as typically Roman were in fact adaptations of those learned from neighbouring peoples and successive generations of enemies. The list below includes a broad variety of the ancient Roman weapons including their possible provenance and evolution.
- Sword: Gladius (aka “Gladius Hispaniensis“):
- This sword was short, double edged and useful as both a cutting and jabbing/stabbing weapon. In fact it was probably at its deadliest as a stab. Its use was likely adopted from the Spanish/Iberian mercenaries which had been engaged by the Carthaginians against the Romans in the first Punic War.
It was kept linked to the belt on the right hand side and could be held in a standard word grip or even as a dagger. A noteworthy point is the gladius’ relatively short length, particularly when compared to that of the gaulish tribes which had a long sword mainly used with a swinging cutting action. The shortness of this gladius allowed it to be used in a more agile way when fighting in a more constrained space, as one would when part of a legion, surround by other men of your century (who are also fighting the enemy!) and holding a large shield. Ie it can be said that it was made for getting up close and stabbing. This approach was perfectly in line with the intended use of the large and highly protective scutum shield.
- Dagger: Pugio:
- Many shapes and sizes have been found and it is likely this was the Roman equivalent of the Swiss army knife: used for all types of need, including daily use in the fields or in the army camp.
- Pilum (Spear):
- The pilum was typically used by the “Hastati” and “Principes” heavily armed foot soldiers which formed the first two lines of the Roman legion.
- The Pilum was a type of spear with a heavy round or square pyramid-shaped metal point and a soft thin neck which attached to the wooden staff. The Pilum had a very particular construction to it: A metal shaft approximately 1.5m in length with the thin soft metal neck and heavy pyramidal tip, would be inserted deep into a wooden shaft so that the total length reached approximately 2m. The insertion was held fast by way of a strengthened pin.
- They would be used within relatively short range (15m-30m) with devastating effect in that at the very least they would stick into enemy shields if not go right through them. Caesar tells us in his Gallic Wars that he’d seen such spears go through two Gallic shields. Even when stuck in the shield the thin neck would bend and hence be rendered useless in terms of being thrown back against the Romans, the metal portion of shaft inserted into the wood made it difficult to simply snap the handle off to regain use of the shield and the bent tip made it impossible for further use: Many of the enemy therefore being either wounded, killed or at least forced to discard their shield before engaging in hand-to-hand combat.
- It is unclear when exactly the Pilum entered regular use within the Ancient Roman legions. The earliest mention Livy makes of it (book 10) coincides with the third Samnitic war around 293BC although it is likely that its use goes back further, possibly copied and refined from a weapon used by the same Iberian mercenaries used by the Carthaginians in the First Punic War: the very same ones that taught the Romans the use of the short gladius.
- Marius introduced some innovation in its construction in the war against the Cibri: the previous pilum had a fastening between metal and wood which included two metal pins. He had one of these replaced by a weak wooden peg which on breaking made it easier for the spear to bend and be cumbersome.
- There were two types of pilum, the difference being in their weight and means of insertion into the wooden staff. Each soldier would carry one of each type.
- Hasta (spear):
- With a point of the type we are most used to (in comparison to the point of the pilum which was relatively specialized). The wooden staff onto which the metal point was fixed would be about 2m in length. This Roman weapon is close to that of the Greeks and was most used in the early days of the Roman army, obsolete by the time of the civil war and empire.
- The javelins carried by the cavalry were double pointed so as to continue to be useful if one point were broken.